[Update Dec 2007 : 'Athens' has since become the codeword for a Windows Home Server PC]

I took the first steps to building a new computer this week – I bought a rather nice case. I doubt I’ll ever get the machine I really want though; the nForce 4 chipset doesn’t come out until November and by the time it does, the 16x PCI Express slots it supports will have been supplanted by something else I imagine.

Microsoft have also been trying to build their fantasy business PC, codename Athens. However, judging by the speed with which they have managed to assemble their apotheosis of an operating system (codename Cairo - 10 years and counting) I’m not sure how they expect to do it. They published a paper about it over a year ago now and even showed a prototype of it at this year’s WinHEC but, like Cairo, they keep changing their minds about its feature set. Touted as ‘an evolution of the PC as a centre for communication and collaboration for information workers’, the satirical face of it then has it as a replacement for the low-TCO PC and multi-line phone; the kind of thing Dilbert might be commissioned to build but never complete because the name ‘OfficeMaster 5000’ isn’t bold enough and beige was last year’s cubicle colour. Spookily enough, the WinHEC prototype actually agrees with that analysis and would appear to have at its heart a computer with a PBX phone system in it.

Now MS has already learnt a valuable lesson from their other foray into consumer hardware, the XBox, and it’s that the really good things are just over the horizon. Gaming consoles are admittedly faced with a much faster development cycle that business pcs as they strive for faster frame rates, ultra-realistic graphics that require 10 quadrillion polygons a second and bandwidth the size of France to keep their fans happy but it’s a good contrast. Because MS has to deliver hardware in Xbox 2, it keep schtumm as to the machine’s exact specs until it’s there in the shops for $300 for the first six months until Sony and Nintendo undercut it again. In comparison, Athens is a “fully disclosed” ideal which means that it won’t ever get built but a lot of lessons learnt from building those prototypes will be heeded and used to build Optiplexes and Business Desktops of the future. Probably what not to do, as well as what should be done.

Two issues not really raised thus far regarding Athens by MS are software and cost. Buyers of business pcs are interested in low total cost of ownership, and easily administrable, standard software that is reliable. Nothing thus far from Athens says “I am the logical next step” for either of the above. No doubt MS will push Longhorn as the OS of choice, and if we recall the recommended system for a Longhorn PC – 4GHz Pentium or 64-bit Processor, 1Gb memory, 160Gb Hard Drive, and DX9 compliant graphics card – pricing starts looking a bit iffy. Add to that the bits of functional candy that might be nice for Longhorn (let alone Athens or Cairo) such as Facetop (thanks Chris Sells) or the bits of the OS X desktop that MS hasn’t ripped off yet and the BPC ideal of minimum requirements for 100% of standard functionality – or “Office 97 and a Pentium 2 333 are still fine thanks” – suggest that Athens will probably do much more for the evolution of gaming pc hardware than it will in the cubicle jungle.

(Incidentally, has anyone noticed the nice progression that has thus far got to Facetop? Keyboard input > mouse input > mouse gestures + Sony’s eyeToy for the Playstation > Facetop for a PC. All we need are some 3-D glasses and we’re playing Tron for real. )